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Controversy erupts over Assam tea garden owner's murder

Jan 28, 2013 08:48 AM IST India India

Guwahati: There is a controversy surrounding the brutal killing of a tea garden owner and his wife in Tinsukhia in Assam. Family members of the nine arrested in the case have alleged that workers at the plantation were exploited and even physically abused.

Mridul Bhattacharjee, the owner of the Konapathar tea estate, and his wife were burnt to death on December 26, 2012. CNN-IBN procured an amateur video that claimed to have been shot at that moment.

A group of more than 200 people entered the bungalow area, they set fire to a vehicle. A group of 30 surrounded the bungalow. They poured petrol and kerosene and set fire to it with the owner and his wife still inside. Police claim that there is a strong possibility that they might have been murdered before the mob moved in.

The police allege some workers even ate the flesh of the owner. At the labour lines, CNN-IBN meet Birsi Mura. Her husband is among the nine arrested by the police. She claimed that her two sons Suraj and Ajit were arrested by the police on false charges of theft on the day of the the murder. When labourers went to meet Bhattacharjee, he reportedly abused them. That was the flashpoint.

"Suraj took three days off. Then he took another three. When he went to work, the owner said vacate your house and stop working," Mura said.

A 200-hectare tea estate, Konapathar, was said to be one of Assam's best. Till 2008, the entire produce used to be exported abroad. But robust profits did not get reflected in the labour lines. There are no proper latrines, no schools and no hospital for the nearly 700 strong labour force. The workers claim severe exploitation.

"For 18 years I have worked. I have been punished often. I have not got my due rights or my provident fund," said a labourer, Asha Mura. "If a labour was absent for a day, wages would be cut and sometimes he would beat them up with a cane." another labourer, Hiren Goala, claimed.

The management insisted that Mr Bhattacharjee was a strict disciplinarian. The labourers who CNN-IBN spoke to insisted that he was a feudal master and whenever they would speak of labour rights, he would pull out a gun and whip them. The management not surprisingly completely dismissed these claims.

In 2010, Bhattacharjee had allegedly shot dead a 14-year-old boy in a mob altercation after he had attacked a woman for using his tea estate road. But the question is what led to this in Konapathar. Kamal Tati of the Assam Tea Tribe Students Association said, "He never cared for the workers. He was like Hitler. It was accumulated anger that burst forth."

In 2007, Assam had witnessed a similar murder of Rupak Gogoi, owner of a tea estate in Golaghat. As an interim arrangement, the state administration with the tea union is looking at a 100-day NREGA work for the daily labourers of Konapathar. But for a state with 10 lakh tea workers and 850 gardens, the response leaves a lot to be desired.